Until last week, 17-year-old Joaquín Oliver epitomized the promise of America. He left Venezuela as a toddler, when his father foresaw the coming collapse of Latin America’s richest country.
Seeking the kind of life and security that’s impossible amid Venezuela’s violence and economic chaos, Joaquin’s father brought his only child to South Florida in 2002. Their American dream was shattered on Valentine’s Day, when Joaquin was gunned down at his high school in Parkland, Florida.
1,300 miles south of Parkland, in the border town of Arauca, Colombia, Venezuelan women have become the backbone of the sex trade, selling their bodies, desperate to find any way to feed themselves. Their escape from their home country’s horrors have turned into a different kind of nightmare.
One thousand miles to the northeast of Arauca, in Port of Spain, Trinidad, Venezuelan teenagers have been forced to become sex slaves, while doctors and lawyers are cleaning houses to keep their families from starving.
900 miles south of Trinidad, in Boa Vista, Brazil, hundreds of Venezuelans sleep out in the open in a town square. A humanitarian crisis has exploded there.
Recent Venezuelan migrants now represent almost 15 percent of the city’s population, overwhelming its infrastructure and health-care systems. Still, Venezuelans believe they are better off in Boa Vista than at home.
These are just some stories of the so-called “Bolivarian Diaspora,” the exodus of millions of Venezuelans escaping the chaos caused by the socialist “Bolivarian Revolution” led by Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro.
That diaspora is rapidly increasing in magnitude. Like other large migrations of the past and present, it is generating suffering on a mass scale, while triggering refugee crises in at least a half-dozen neighboring countries. Sadly, very little is being done to help.
The actual number of Venezuelan exiles is hard to come by, but even the lowest estimates are mind numbing. A recent Brookings Institution article suggests that as many as 4 million Venezuelans have left the country since Chávez took power in 1999, many of them in the past few years. That would represent more than 12 percent of the country’s entire population.
This may only be the beginning. Surveys have found a large majority of young Venezuelans want to emigrate, something that would exacerbate the existing brain drain. This flight of skilled workers will handicap Venezuela’s chances of ever recovering from its current calamity.
Calling it a calamity may be an understatement. Hunger is rampant, medicines are scarce, violence is endemic, hyperinflation in 2018 will reach 13,000 percent according to the IMF, and, by the end of this year the Venezuelan economy will be half the size it was in 2013.
As I wrote in “The Hill” two weeks ago, Venezuela’s economic collapse is making the Great Depression seem like a mild recession. The result is that a country that was a magnet for migration in the 20th century has become a motor of mass migration in the 21st.
Soon, the Venezuelan refugee crisis will rival, if not exceed Syria’s. And Venezuelan refugees are sorely taxing their neighbors’ economies, as Syrian refugees have impacted their Middle Eastern neighbors.
Joaquín Oliver’s family is just one of the estimated quarter-million Venezuelans who abandoned hope at home and moved to South Florida.
The largest group of exiles has fled across the border to Colombia. Estimates of how many Venezuelans now reside in Colombia vary wildly, from as few as 750,000 to as many as 2 million. No matter how many exiles it has absorbed, what’s clear is that Colombia can no longer cope.
The United Nations has offered to help set up more refugee camps and, earlier this month, Colombian President Santos added thousands of troops to tighten control of the border. He also blamed his Venezuelan counterpart, saying: “This is the result of your policies… this is [also] the result of your refusal to accept help, humanitarian aid.”
Brazil, despite its size and wealth, is also facing pressure to stop Venezuelan migration. The Brazilian government has said it “will not build a wall.”
But Defense Minister Raul Jungmann is concerned, describing the Venezuelan migration as a “humanitarian drama,” adding that, “Venezuelans are being expelled from their country by hunger and the lack of jobs and medicine.”
Reuters reports that shelters set up in Brazil with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are full. Still, Venezuelans continue to arrive by the thousands.
A spokesman for the Roraima state government, whose capital is Boa Vista, says, “The situation has worsened. More and more are arriving and there is nowhere to house them to get them off the streets.”
In the Caribbean, Venezuelan boat people are losing their lives attempting to reach the nearby islands of Curacao, Aruba and Trinidad. While their plight is minor compared to the terrible mass drownings of migrants in the Mediterranean, it is a serious and worsening problem.
So are the crises caused by the arrival of Venezuelan refugees on island nations that simply aren’t capable of absorbing the sudden population growth.
Until last year, the tipping point of the refugee crisis could have been avoided because there was plenty of notice that it could spiral out of control.
Early last summer, I wrote here that if the international community didn’t act, the Venezuelan exodus “would dwarf the size of the Cuban and Haitian migration to the U.S.” Many others sounded the alarm as well.
But the international community was paralyzed. China and Russia made it clear they would not support any United Nations efforts to address Venezuela’s meltdown.
As recently as November, they cynically boycotted an informal public United Nations Security Council meeting on Venezuela, arguing that the Security Council had no business getting involved.
Despite the yeoman efforts of the secretary general of the Organization of American States, broad regional efforts failed, thanks, in part, to the support Venezuela received from its few remaining socialist brethren in Latin America: Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia.
They, along with small Caribbean nations who had benefited from Venezuelan oil largesse, prevented the OAS from passing even a basic resolution condemning the well-documented human rights abuses of the Venezuelan dictatorship.
The U.S. didn’t help, failing to exert leadership when Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Supreme Court lets Texas abortion law stand Trump-era ban on travel to North Korea extended Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump MORE couldn’t be bothered to attend either of two OAS meetings of foreign ministers on Venezuela, even though one was held in Washington, D.C.
The EU has talked a good game, but, when push has come to shove, it has not imposed the kind of strong sanctions against the Venezuelan regime that, together with those of the U.S. and Canada, could have put serious pressure on Maduro and his kleptocratic henchmen.
The only solution to this enormous migrant crisis is a change in government. As long as the Chavistas remain in power, the exodus will continue unabated.
However, it’s naïve to think regime change will be an immediate panacea that solves all that ails Venezuela. The country will require a massive international aid program just to transition from failed state to minimally functioning society.
Even then, Venezuela will need enormous foreign investment to revive its economic infrastructure, especially its crumbling oil industry, devastated from almost two decades of Chavista mismanagement. That will all take years, maybe decades. In the meantime, hopelessness will surely lead to the exile of many more.
So, while we wait and hope for the inevitable political change, the international community must first open its eyes and recognize the dimension of what is happening. Many articles and studies on the world’s worst refugee problems still don’t mention Venezuela.
Then, the international community must open its wallets to support Venezuela’s neighbors and help alleviate the suffering caused by the largest refugee crisis the Americas have ever seen.
Antonio Mora (@AMoraTV) is the editor-in-chief of NewsandNews.com and a lecturer at the University of Miami School of Communication. He is a former news anchor for "Good Morning America" and a former host of Al Jazeera America's primetime international news hour. He is both a Venezuelan and American lawyer.